Friday, October 2, 2009

Homily for the feast of the Protection of the Virgin Mary

by Protopriest Igor Hrebinka

Today, dear brethren, we celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Holy Mother of God. The beginning of this holiday goes back to 910 A.D. in the city of Constantinople, in the former Byzantine Empire, the modern-day Turkey. At that time the city was being besieged by enemies, who threatened it with complete destruction, since the siege caught the city unawares, without the necessary means of defense. It is easy to understand the panic and fear of the inhabitants; however, they did not lose their heads.

Weak in military power, but strong in their faith and hope in God, the Greeks – together with their emperor, Leo the Wise, - gathered for an all-night vigil in the famous church of Vlakherna, where the raiment of the Mother of God was kept, and here they ardently prayed to the Queen of Heaven and earth for their deliverance.

It was at this moment that appeared the wondrous vision which we celebrate today and which remained unforgettable for all times.

In the church stood the righteous fool-for-Christ Andrew, who came from Scythia (which later became Russia), together with his disciple Epiphanius, who later became the Patriarch of Constantinople. Both of them saw the Holy Theotokos pray for the people together with the entire assembly of saints who accompanied Her, and during the prayer She covered the faithful with Her veil.

Right now we are in similar circumstances: also in church, also at a service. But what would we feel, dear brethren, if the Mother of God were to appear before us together with an entire assembly of saints?! We would have been thoroughly awestruck, unable to express our feeling in words. All of us would probably stand dumbfounded with holy awe, wonderment, delight…

And yet that is not so impossible, it is not only an ephemeral dream! The mysteries of the spiritual world surround us everywhere like air. We do not see them with our eyes, because our physical sight is too coarse, it is adapted only for purely physical purposes. Arm you eye with a telescope – and you will see sunspots a million miles away, you will see the famous canals on Mars, etc. Look in a microscope – and you will see teeming life in the tiniest drop of water.

To some degree this is a miracle, but at the same time it is natural; it is the physical laws that operate here. But there is another, different world, a spiritual world. No one can penetrate it only with the help of physical laws.

Everyone carries a particle of this spiritual world within himself – this is our soul.

The life of the soul within us is closely bound with the physical construction of our organism, and at the same time we feel that this is only a temporary arrangement. If we do not like it, we try not to think about it. If thoughts of spiritual life come to us, we try to chase them away from us.

But let us ponder, dear brethren: where now are the countless millions of people who, beginning with Adam, have lived on the earth? Discounting their personal spiritual state, we understand that they must be located somewhere. Their bodies have long turned to dust, but where are their souls?

And at this point we come face to face with an idea – though vague but still definitely present – about a creative plan for the universe, which consists of two parts – spiritual and physical, and at the edge of these two worlds stands man.

The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God shows us the union of these two worlds. Actually, most miraculous here is not the vision itself, of the Mother of God and all the saints praying for the people, - this is mentioned in all the sticheras in our services that speak of the Theotokos, - but miraculous is the fact that this vision was seen by man. This is the real miracle, since it entails a retreat from customary laws of nature. The spiritual world and all its manifestations are usually invisible to the human eye.

We have become used to imagining that She, the Holy Theotokos, and all the saints, all the deceased, the entire spiritual world in general – are somewhere over there, far away in the heavens. It is unusual and even difficult for us to believe and the Mother of God and all the saints are so close to us that they can pray together with us in our churches.

The Divine liturgy, which is served by sinful people, is a mystery which, in the words of a church prayer, “even the holy angels wish to penetrate,” while for Her, the Holy Mother of God, this sacrifice must be most precious of all.

Do not let go of the chance, dear brethren, to make use of the Theotokos’ nearness, and to pray to Her with childish simplicity, loyalty and sincere faith, calling out to Her: "Rejoice, o our Joy, protect us from all evil with Thy most precious veil." Amen.

* * *

Once again we have gathered, dear brethren, for a feast of the Most-pure Theotokos; once again we shall hear the Gospel reading, so familiar to us, about the meeting of the two joyous Mothers – Mary and Elizabeth; once again we shall exclaim together with the Theotokos: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and My spirit doth rejoice in God, My Saviour”; once again we shall joyously open our lips and gladly sing praises to Her miracles.

And this is truly a miracle of God’s mercy that it is so easy for our hearts to open up to hymning the Mother of God, that not only are we not wearied by the frequent feast days of the Virgin, but after each one passes we impatiently wait for the next one, which proves how much we love Her Who is more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.

Today’s feast has its special characteristics which make it particularly precious to us. The Most-pure spread Her veil over a city that was under siege, over a people who had no other hope except the help of the Queen of Heaven; and She interceded for this people. And thus, from this ancient historical fact into the Christian soul has entered the assurance that when there is no other intercessor, no other comfort, no other joy, when the heart is ready to accept the bitter idea that it is lonely, forgotten and unneeded by anyone, – then it suffices just to remember that we have a kind, merciful and compassionate Mother Who sees our needs, hears our entreaties, and is always ready to help us, support us, comfort us; it suffices to remember all this and appeal to Her, the Most-pure and Most-blessed, with all our heart, cry out to Her – and then a miracle will occur: sorrow will pass, and a quiet, tender joy and reconciliation to God’s will shall fill our soul.

These spiritual emotions – both sorrow and the joy that follow it – are facts, reality, actuality. We know where sorrow comes from, what gives rise to it; we should also know exactly where joy comes from, in order not to think of it as happenstance, as something which occurs of its own accord or from a change of inner mood.

The Church helps us examine our soul and see the source of its joy. In today’s kontakion it will point out to us that “today the Virgin standeth forth in the Church and with the choir of the saints She invisibly prayeth to God for us.”
Can there be any sadness or affliction where the Queen of Heaven spreads Her glittering veil? Where people appeal to Her with prayer? Can we doubt Her unseen presence among us? If we purify our feelings so that our heart would not be subject to any earthly passion, then by the prayers of the Theotokos the joy of Christ will once again encompass us and will be the source of everlasting spiritual comfort. Amen.


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